I live approximately 80 miles away from Knockemstiff, Ohio. It’s little more than a ghost town sitting just southwest of Chillicothe, a small city near the northern border of Ohio’s section of Appalachia. There was a point in my checkered career when, for nine years or so, I regularly made trips to southern Ohio and dealt with individuals such as those who populate the pages of KNOCKEMSTIFF, Donald Ray Pollock’s collection of masterful, haunting short stories. I always told myself that I should write a book about the people I met and the incidents I experienced. Pollock though has beaten me to it, and has done a better job than I ever could have.
The residents of KNOCKEMSTIFF, at least as described in Pollock’s stories, stumble through a hardscrabble existence preoccupied with fulfilling the needs and satisfying the impulses of the moment. It is a place where entitlement to a regular government check is an element of attraction when choosing a mate, a point on the map where bad decisions and nasty happenstance meet and create poverty, their bastard stepchild.
Pollock’s descriptions of people and events here are unflinching; there is a dark humor that informs his work, but it is the soft kiss that precedes the bare-knuckled punch. His stories are by turns subtle and brutally straightforward. One containing stark, sharp elements of both is “Assailants.” Del and Geraldine have a child together, which makes one shudder. Del is an alcoholic prone to embarrassing behavior during blackouts, while Geraldine is fresh out of a group home. Pollock paints a matter-of-fact picture of Del changing the baby with the last diaper in the box and then stealthily raiding her college fund --- begun by Geraldine --- to buy beer (not diapers) at the local carry-out. One wants to reach through the pages of KNOCKEMSTIFF and throttle him; it is a simple scene, but one that stays in the mind.
The relationship between parent and child is played out with poignant and painful frequency throughout the selections in KNOCKEMSTIFF. “I Start Over” is another story that haunts, taking place for the most part in a drive-through line at a Dairy Queen, where Big Bernie Givens, self-described as “stuck in southern Ohio like the smile on a dead clown’s [butt],” finds his own bad decisions and those of others --- particularly his son’s --- coming to a sudden and unexpected head.
Knockemstiff is a desolate place where hope springs eternal just before being trampled underfoot by those who behold it. It is a place where illicit commerce, subtle and otherwise, is done in a local donut shop, where blood plasma is the stuff of commerce, where those who escape, as in “Hair’s Fate,” simply go from bad to worse. The only “winner,” if you will, is the monster who we meet in “Dynamite Hole,” who manages to play the system with an innate canniness that is ultimately frightening.
Pollock has been compared favorably to Chuck Palahniuk and Harry Crews (I would add the late Larry Brown to the list). His tour of Knockemstiff is unforgettable, funny, frightening, depressing and enlightening. And one senses he has only begun to scratch the surface of the stories he can tell.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011